Rare overlap of holy days shows the promise and problems of Jerusalem

JERUSALEM – Friday morning, when clashes erupted at the Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem, Muslims fasted inside and outside the mosque on the 14th day of Ramadan.

A few hundred meters away, Jews burned sourdough bread, a traditional ceremony that takes place just before Easter, which formally began Friday night.

A few minutes to the north, Christians began a procession through the Old City, holding wooden crosses in the air and following the route they believe Jesus Christ took before his crucifixion.

For the first time since 1991, Easter, Easter and Ramadan were about to take place at once – reinforcing the religious synergies and tensions that have defined Jerusalem for millennia.

For some, the overlap embodied the wonder of Jerusalem and the impression of coexistence among its people.

“Jerusalem right now is a symphony of people reaching out to God,” said Barnea Selavan, a rabbi and teacher who had just finished burning his family’s remaining leavened bread.

For others, the convergence highlighted the incompatibilities and inequalities of a city where many Palestinian residents consider themselves living under occupation. Clashes broke out again on Sunday after Israeli police officers prevented Muslims from entering the Aqsa Mosque for several hours to allow Jews to enter for prayer.

“Jerusalem is like a salad bowl,” said Mustafa Abu Sway, a professor of Islamic thought who had just left the mosque. You have intact tomatoes and intact cucumbers and intact lettuce leaves. You do not have a salad. ”

And for some Christians, whose Easter Friday parade started earlier than usual to avoid bothering Muslims on their way to the mosque, the convergence of holidays underscored the feeling of being a minority in a minority.

“We are like a mashed potato between everyone,” said Serene Bathish, leader of an Arab Christian Scout Club, which helped organize the Easter procession. “We’re between two fires.”

Far from seas and large rivers and high up in the mountains, Jerusalem had little strategic importance in much of its history, military or commercial. Its power and relevance most often lay in the spiritual grip it had over millions of people, many of whom had never visited it, and for whom it had often meant drastically different things.

For Jews, Jerusalem is their ancient capital, the seat of King David and the site of two ancient Jewish temples where they believe God’s presence resided. For Muslims, it was from the same place that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, and on which they built the Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest place in Islam. For Christians, it is the city where Jesus was crucified and ascended to heaven – where Christianity was born.

The Old City was ruled by the Ottomans until 1917, the British until 1948 and Jordan until 1967, when Israel conquered and later annexed it. A large part of the world still considers it occupied, and the Palestinians hope that it will be in the capital of a future Palestinian state.

“Everyone has a Jerusalem in their head,” said Matthew Teller, author of “Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City.”

“When you get there and you actually take it seriously,” he said, “it can never match.”

As an example, Thursday night, the night of the first convergence of the three holidays since 1991 began with an intense traffic jam.

On the narrow road that encircles the Old City, Christians like Ms. Bathish on his way to a service next to the Garden of Gethsemane, an olive grove full of withered trees, where tradition believes Jesus was arrested the night before his crucifixion. And Muslims like Professor Abu Sway were on their way to the Aqsa Mosque, where tens of thousands had just broken their fast in Ramadan at a joint iftar or meal.

Around the old city walls, built by the Ottomans who ruled Jerusalem in the 16th century, Muslim families held picnics here and there on the grassy edge. They broke their fast to a soundtrack of car horns, distant songs from the mosque and later faint choral melodies hovering from the basilica of Gethsemane.

In front of everyone was trapped traffic around this old city with a ring of cars and buses, the mysterious surrounded by the profane.

In Rabbi Selavan’s apartment in the Jewish Quarter of the Old Town, the scene was a little quieter on Thursday night.

He and his wife, Shoshana, symbolically hid pieces of their last remaining leavened bread – purchased from a rare Arab-run kosher bakery in the old city – around their homes, behind chairs and a trash can and under tables. Then they started looking for the pieces that the other had saved.

According to Jewish teachings, Jews are not allowed to eat sourdough bread during the Easter week, which celebrates the flight of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The Old Testament says that they escaped so quickly that they did not have time for their bread to rise.

For Rabbi Selavan, it was extraordinary to celebrate the feast in the city that the descendants of the Israelites eventually made their capital. In his living room he keeps a small oil lamp, which he found during an excavation under his home, and which he believes was used in Jerusalem in the time of King Solomon, about 3,000 years ago. It is filled with charcoal, which he believes originates from the charred remains of the ancient city, after it was razed by the Romans around the year 70.

“I am in a rebuilt – at least in part – Jerusalem,” said Rabbi Selavan. “I do it where it was done.”

Half a mile away, hundreds of Christians in Gethsemane, including Mrs. Bathish, began a procession from the basilica. They chanted and carried candles through the traffic jams, where the quotient again mingled with the ethereal.

“Stay on the sidewalk!” shouted an organizer in Arabic. “Not in the way!”

The procession passed a piece of church land that the Israeli authorities had recently planned to relocate as a national park before retreating under Christian allegations of discrimination. Then it went along the Jewish cemetery at the bottom of the Mount of Olives, before winding through a valley filled with eccentric ancient monuments – Zechariah’s pyramid-shaped tomb, Absalom’s tomb with a conical roof – and then up against the old city wall. .

For Mrs. Bathish, it is a privilege to celebrate Easter where it started, and to live a few feet from where Christians believe Christ died.

“But actually, we don’t get to enjoy it that much,” she said. There are an estimated 5,000 Christians left in the old city, along with about 30,000 Muslims and 5,000 Jews – and they feel trapped between the two.

After averting the government’s efforts to recycle church land near Gethsemane, church leaders are locked in an ownership dispute with a Jewish settler group over buildings on the other side of the old city.

Fighting these legal challenges and living in a tight police area, all while fighting for cultural recognition, is “very tiring, time consuming, difficult, chaotic, insecure,” Bathish said. “We do not enjoy the whole feeling of uniqueness.”

A few hundred meters away, on the promontory where Jews and Christians believe that Abraham was trying to sacrifice his son Isaac, was Professor Abu Sway, the Islamic theologian, in his proper element. Along with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren, he listened to a reading of the Koran.

For Jews, he was on the Temple Mount, the site of a Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans. But for Muslims, this is the Aqsa Mosque, a 36-hectare esplanade that includes the Golden Dome of the Rock, a shrine that marks the rise of the Prophet Muhammad.

An imam had just read part of the Qur’an about the Prophet Musa, known as Moshe to Jews and Moses to Christians, and would soon begin a chapter on Muhammad’s journey to Jerusalem.

Soaked at the moment, “it looks like I’m in love,” said Professor Abu Sway. “When you enter the Aqsa Mosque,” he said, “you feel blessed that it is something special that not many people have access to.”

But for the professor, that realization was bittersweet.

For Rabbi Selavan, the holidays embodied the common life of the city and demonstrated the efforts of the state of Israel to preserve the freedom of worship. “The thinking person realizes the freedom they have under the Israeli government to serve God in their way,” the rabbi said.

But for Professor Abu Sway, the convergence was a reminder that many Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza are not allowed to enter Jerusalem to worship. And the violence Friday in the mosque between Israeli police and Palestinian stone-throwers did not highlight coexistence, but coercion.

“There can be no coexistence,” said Professor Abu Sway, “when you have occupation.”

Myra Noveck contributed with reporting.

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